Shortly before Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he would support the nomination of Haidar al-Abadi to replace him, Flynt appeared on KPFK’s Background Briefing with Ian Masters to talk about Iran’s relations with Iraq and the importance of understanding the Islamic State as an externally-supported transnational movement. To listen to the segment, click here.
Regarding Iran’s role in shaping the trajectory of Iraqi politics, Flynt notes,
“It’s certainly true that Iran has substantial influence over the Dawa party (Mr. Maliki’s party and Mr. Abadi’s party); it has great influence over basically all of the Shi’a Islamist parties. Many of these parties started as opposition groups (opposition to Saddam Husayn). The Islamic Republic supported many of these groups in exile in opposition to Saddam, and when Saddam was overthrown, these groups, these parties came back to Iraq and they became basically the most important political players in Iraqi politics. Iran has very, very good relationships with all of them, with virtually all of the major figures in each of these parties. They have a very strong relationship with Maliki; I’m sure they have a strong relationship with Abadi.
It’s wrong, though, to think of the Iranians as basically picking winners and losers in these battles. I think the Iranians are very careful basically to make sure they always have options. Essentially, whoever would be able to put together a majority coalition in the parliament that would enable him to become the next prime minister of Iraq, whether it’s Mr. Maliki or whether it’s somebody else, is going to be someone, almost by definition, that the Iranians have a good working relationship with. They try not to be in a situation where they put all their eggs in one basket, stake everything on one particular candidate.”
As to why Iran continues to support Iraq’s territorial and political integrity, Flynt explains,
“I think one reason why Iran would like to see Iraq stay together is that the majority of the population in Iraq is Shi’a, it’s at least sixty percent Shi’a. And while you could, in theory, create this Shi’a-majority state in southern Iraq (it would be an oil-rich state, a fairly populous state), there are also Shi’a who live throughout Iraq; there are Shi’a who live in provinces where they’re not the majority of the population. And if you broke up Iraq, the status of those Shi’a would be much more exposed, much more at risk.
I think also, from a geopolitical standpoint, if you’re worried about what can happen in Sunni-majority parts of Iraq where you have this ISIS state taking root in a context where Iraq is at least nominally unitary, why would you think that’s going to be better if you actually break up Iraq? That problem isn’t going to get better; it could, in significant ways, get worse, from an Iranian standpoint.
So, in terms of not wanting to see post-Saddam Shi’a political gains eroded in Iraq and also in terms of the geopolitics and the problems that could come up in non-Shi’a-majority parts of Iraq, the Iranians think it’s better to try and manage those problems with Iraq as a unitary state than not.”
Turning to the Islamic State, Flynt argues that it needs to be understood as an externally-supported transnational movement.
“I think it is a big mistake to read the Islamic State movement as just a bunch of thugs. I think these guys are very smart, and they have a political program, an expansionist political program, that aims to create a state which actually controls an ever-expanding amount of territory. They have a political program that is, by orders of magnitude, more developed than anything al-Qa’ida ever came up with. These guys are in serious business, not just from a military or we might say a terrorist standpoint; they’re in serious business politically…
I think they have gotten support from a number of different sources, including some of our so-called allies. There has been a lot of financial support at least that’s come out of Saudi Arabia, some Gulf Arab states, for the Islamic State. Turkey has been supportive of them at various junctures. So they do have external support.
It is [also] a transnational movement. It’s not overwhelmingly Iraqi at all. There’s an important figure in the movement who’s a Chechen, from Russia. There are Uighurs from China who are fighting in it. There are people from all over the Arab world, really from all over the Muslim world who have come to join this cause.
So it is not just a bunch of thugs. This is a serious movement, with serious external support and a transnational base.”
Just as the Islamic State movement has a transnational base, it is increasingly having a transnational impact. That the Islamic State has an appreciable presence in Syria as well as in Iraq is well-known. The most recent manifestation of the movement’s transnational impact can be seen in Lebanon, where it has attacked the town of Arsal near the Lebanese-Syrian border. This means that the only possible solution to the ISIS problem is necessarily regional in nature.
But U.S. policy remains disinclined to pursue a genuinely regional approach to dealing with the Islamic State. As Flynt points out, understanding Iraq’s current political challenges and the Islamic State’s rise requires a critically sober examination of the deep incoherence and internal contradictions in American strategy toward Iraq and toward the Middle East as a whole:
“The United States says it supports a unitary Iraq—and yet, even before the invasion of 2003 when Saddam was overthrown, the United States for the last twenty or twenty-five years has been pursuing policies that progressively undermined any potential national unity in Iraq. I think there’s a real strategic incoherence there in American policy, cutting across multiple administrations of both parties.
One reason the United States says it still supports a unitary Iraq is because basically none of Iraq’s neighbors—whether those are countries the United States has close alliances with, like Turkey, or whether it’s a country like Iran that the United States has strained relations with—everyone in the neighborhood says it doesn’t want to see Iraq broken up. The United States makes noises like it respects that.”
But those noises don’t comport with the deeply destructive on-the-ground impact of U.S. policy. In reviewing ISIS’s external supporters, Flynt notes that the United States has its “own hand to play in the creation and growth” of what is now called the Islamic State:
“Everybody talks about what a great idea the ‘surge’ was in Iraq in 2007-2008, but basically what the surge amounted to was U.S. arming and training 80,000 Sunni militants of various descriptions. While we were training them, we paid them $300 a month each so that they wouldn’t kill Americans during the period while we were training them. But we helped to feed what is now ISIS in a big way with the surge.
Then, after the unrest started in Syria in March 2011, and Saudi money, Gulf Arab money started flowing to this group (ostensibly so they could fight the Syrian government under President Assad), we basically turned a blind eye to all of this. We wanted to see the Syrian opposition supported, we wanted to see President Assad overthrown, and these guys were the most capable fighters in that arena. So, if our so-called allies were supporting these guys, that was fine with us. And now—certainly for us and, I think, there’s a good chance for the Saudis—this movement has slipped the leash, and is no longer really responsive to some of the places from which it got early support.”
Even now, in dealing with the Islamic State, the Obama administration’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS fighters plays right into the Islamic State’s jihadist narrative. As Flynt puts it, “Nothing will rehabilitate these guys like getting bombed by the United States.” More broadly,
“The biggest mistake we have made (and the 2003 invasion is a major manifestation of this, but not the only manifestation of it) is to think that we can micromanage political outcomes in a place like Iraq—whether by deciding who we arm, who we don’t arm, to whom do we provide close air support, to whom do we not provide close air support—that we can use these kinds of crude tools and micromanage political outcomes in a society that’s this complicated. This is not just ‘it doesn’t work’; it is grossly self-damaging and counterproductive for American interests.
The demographics of Iraq as such that, in any kind of representative political order, the major political players are going to be, first and foremost, Shi’a Islamists, and, secondly, Kurdish parties. That’s just where the demographics are. Sunnis in Iraq are probably at this point twenty percent of the population at best, at most.
And so we’ve got to understand that elected governments in Iraq—every government elected since Saddam was overthrown has been a coalition of Shi’a Islamists and Kurds. We may not like that, we may not like that these guys are all friends of Iran or others we don’t like, but that is the reality. And if you want to try to maintain some semblance of order in this part of the Middle East, you have to be willing to work with the governments that are there, the governments that are rooted there, work with them, quit trying to undermine them, quit withholding cooperation with them [as we did with]… Maliki …The United States messed up Iraq by trying to play those games, and it can only make things worse if it continues to play them.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett